Download Provisioning and Cultural Services chapter chapter 18


Lead Author:  Henry Huntington 

Contributing Authors: Olga Anisimova, Tom Christensen, Terry Fenge, Alf Håkon Hoel, Thomas Jung, Konstantin Klokov, Flemming Merkel, Kaisu Mustonen, Tero Mustonen, Frank Sejersen, John Snyder, Bernard Stonehouse and Sarah Fleischer Trainor


After a successful hunt. Photo: Carsten Egevang/ARC-PIC.comAfter a successful hunt. Photo: Carsten Egevang/

Ecosystems provide a range of services and values to humans. In this chapter, two types of services from Arctic ecosystems, provisioning and cultural services, are considered. Provisioning services deliver food and other materials that humans use directly. Cultural services support ways of life, enjoyment and other less tangible aspects of human life. There is overlap, of course, in that many provisioning services also entail cultural well-being. Other services, including supporting services that make possible other ecosystem functions, and regulating services, that keep ecosystems in balance, are not considered here. They are important, but relatively little information is available for the Arctic on these topics.

Provisioning services sustain Arctic residents through food, employment, identity and in other ways. Reindeer herding provides livelihoods across northern Eurasia and in a few locations in North America. It also provides meat and other products for local and distant markets. Commercial fisheries in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters gener ate the most money of any provisioning services in the Arctic, and are responsible for over 10% of the world’s fish catch and 5.3% of its crustacean catch by weight. Commercial and subsistence hunting, gathering and small-scale fishing are traditional activities that have sustained Arctic peoples for millennia. They continue today and retain high cultural importance, although they are responsible for a smaller portion of the diet than in times past. Recreational and sport hunting is becoming more popular, and constitutes another way by which Arctic peoples and visitors can make use of Arctic wildlife.

Cultural services, beyond those associated with provisioning services, reach people in the Arctic and around the world. Tourism is increasingly popular in the Arctic, especially on cruise ships. Tourism brings opportunities for income, as well as the potential for largely localized social and environmental disturbance. It can also create advocates for Arctic conservation among those who have experienced the region and its biodiversity first-hand. There are also many non-market values associated with the simple existence of the Arctic and its ecosystems, which many people appreciate from afar without any direct experience in the region. In a world with fewer undisturbed places, intact ecosystems such as those in the Arctic are likely to become increasingly scarce and thus increasing valuable.

I was born in the tundra, without any doctors. I have lived all my life in the tundra, naturally it is my home. When we live in tundra we live in close interaction with Nature. For example a small bush is only a small bush to some people, but to me it tells many things. I can read from it what kind of a bird has been here… If I need to find something, for example if we have lost some reindeer, I can ask the fire by feeding it. And the fire starts to answer, it turns to a certain direction. And if I travel to this direction I will find the reindeer. Nature feeds me. It helps me. I can speak with the grass, bushes and water – I can speak with all things. I am connected to all things. I can be connected with the fire… It feeds me. This is a life for me. It is inborn. Our Elders did not pray, they just talked with nature. I can do the same. I just talk with the fire in the tundra. Tomorrow I will be lucky, Nature has heard me. I just talked with it. Dmitrii Nikolayevich Begunov in Mustonen (2009).

Most provisioning and cultural services are healthy at present. Reindeer herding is a possible exception, though it is also highly variable making it difficult to detect or predict trends. Sport hunting and tourism are increasingly popular, which may also produce more conf licts with other uses or users. Non-market values are likely to increase, but this is partly the result of increasing scarcity of undisturbed ecosystems. Further research is needed to evaluate such trends over longer periods and in more detail, and to attempt to quantify in monetary or other terms the values that accrue to human society from maintaining healthy, functioning ecosystems and associated services in the Arctic.


The idea of ‘ecosystem services’ developed from the long-standing recognition that humans depend on the natural world directly and indirectly. The term is an effort to identify and measure “the benefits that people receive from nature” (Cambridge Conservation Initiative and BirdLife International 2011).  While the value of the direct use of living resources was reasonably well established, relatively little attention had been given to the value of less visible services such as flood control by wetlands, pollination by insects and the simple existence of wild places and species (e.g. TEEB 2010). For the most part, these functions were taken for granted, recognized only when they disappeared e.g. when a flood caused damage or a species went extinct.  The possibility that some of these services might diminish or disappear provided a spur for better methods of recognizing their value while they were still working so that they might be conserved, or at least weighed in the balance against the consequences of human activity.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA 2005) placed ecosystem services in four categories: supporting services, provisioning services, cultural services, and regulating services. There is some overlap in that many services can provide benefits in more than one category e.g. hunting caribou Rangifer tarandus, herding reindeer or catching fish can both provide nourishment and cultural values. Intact wetlands that regulate water flow can also preserve species and habitats. Nonetheless, the categories help emphasize the range of services, direct and indirect, that healthy ecosystems provide. The MEA approach is not the only way to consider ecosystems and their services. Box 18.1 describes indigenous ways of considering the benefits that humans receive from their environment.

This chapter surveys four provisioning and two cultural services in the Arctic. Supporting and regulating services are important, but less well documented in the Arctic (see Box 18.2). The chapter is neither exhaustive nor definitive. Instead, a range of services have been selected, providing an exploratory look at how Arctic ecosystems benefit people. Where possible, quantification of services has been attempted. In many instances, circumpolar data are lacking, so that qualitative assessment is necessary for some or all of the region. The prospects for improved data and more detailed evaluation of ecosystem services are taken up in the Discussion (Section 18.4).

Reindeer herding; commercial fisheries; commercial and subsistence hunting, gathering, and small-scale fishing; and recreational and sport hunting and fishing are the provisioning services addressed here. These are the main sources of food produced in the Arctic. In tundra regions, which are the main focal area of this chapter, there is little or no agriculture, and by definition no timber industry. Some activities south of the tree line are addressed in order to provide a more complete picture for migratory species and geographically extensive practices such as reindeer herding, and to include those indigenous peoples who participate in the activities of the Arctic Council.

Cultural services through inclusion of tourism and existence values recognize that provisioning services also entail cultural dimensions. Tourism and existence values are related services, based largely on the interest that people around the world have in experiencing the Arctic or simply knowing that Arctic places and species exist.  Two additional points are worth noting which help to place the ideas of ecosystem services in context. First, many Arctic communities and regions benefit from various forms of economic support, including transfer payments, government subsidies and other services such as mail service provided at rates below market costs, all of which help make it possible to live in remote Arctic regions with some degree of modern goods and conveniences. Without such support local ecosystems are incapable of supporting the current population of Arctic regions at  their current standard of living.

One strong piece of evidence for this conclusion leads to the second point. When the Soviet Union ended, taking various government support programs with it, the population of the Russian Arctic declined sharply, causing an overall decline in the total Arctic population. The loss of economic support in the Russian Arctic led to an increase in use of some local species for foods. Thus, the level of use of Arctic provisioning services cannot be separated from demographic and economic trends. Assessing the full implications of these connections, however, is beyond the scope of this chapter. The chapter concludes with discussion of the services provided by Arctic ecosystems, potential directions for future evaluation of ecosystem services, and recommendations for data collection and analysis to improve future efforts.


Ecosystem services in the Arctic are important economically, environmentally and culturally. These services benefit Arctic residents directly, providing food and material benefits as well as supporting indigenous cultures, including language. The Arctic ecosystem also serves the rest of the world, as a destination for tourism in various forms, simply by existing, and by providing a large amount of food from commercial fisheries and reindeer husbandry. Recognition of the importance of these services, and an assessment of how they are changing, is vital to design effective Arctic conservation strategies.

At the same time, ecosystem services must be viewed in a wider context. First, the services are not necessarily compatible. For example, the allocation of hunting or fishing rights may pit one user group against another, resulting in a debate about the relative values of different types of use. At the same time, the Arctic and its resources have value for humans in other ways, such as extractive industries like mining and oil and gas. While extraction is not necessarily incompatible with a healthy ecosystem, there are usually impacts of one form or another, and the value of extraction is weighed – implicitly or explicitly – against the value of the ecosystem services that may be lost. Such comparisons may be inherently uneven, in that they compare a direct value (e.g. barrels of oil extracted) with values that are often indirect and difficult to quantify (e.g. the existence value of a polar bear). Furthermore, indirect services are often diffuse, and thus most measures may be partial rather than comprehensive. Nonetheless, an articulation of the values of ecosystem services is necessary to understand what is at stake from environmental degradation, and to understand the benefits of conservation of the Arctic environment.

This assessment of ecosystem services should be seen as preliminary, providing what we hope is a useful baseline for future comparisons, but also recognized as incomplete in that many services, such as the provision of freshwater, have not been addressed, and the full value of some services has probably been underestimated because their full dimensions have not yet been encompassed. Further studies of ecosystem services, their delineation and their valuation are necessary to provide a more complete picture of the many ways that human societies benefit from the Arctic ecosystem. Arctic biodiversity is a world heritage, its significance extending around the globe in ways we are only beginning to see.

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